Q&A: College Advising Corps CEO Nicole Hurd

NicoleHurd2-1In December we announced that the CEO of Cooke Foundation grantee College Advising Corps (CAC), Dr. Nicole Hurd, was included on the 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education Influence List. This fantastic honor was awarded based on the CAC’s work in helping low-income, first-generation college and underrepresented students get to college.

Dr. Hurd’s journey began at the University of Virginia, where she served as assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, taught in the Department of Religious Studies, and led the first university-wide Office of Undergraduate Research. She also founded a pilot project called the College Guide Program, known today as the College Advising Corps. Early on, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded Dr. Hurd and the College Guide Program a $10 million grant to expand into 10 additional states and increase their good work. That first connection kick started what has since then been a long and fruitful partnership.

Today Dr. Hurd continues her passion for improving higher education as the CEO of the College Advising Corps with twenty-three university partners across the country. We had the privilege of speaking with her in an exclusive Q&A which you can read below.

Congratulations on this great accomplishment! In your opinion, why do you think you were selected?

Thank you. Indeed, the Chronicle recognition is a tremendous honor, yet this is really a team recognition. We had a year of tremendous growth and impact that would not have been possible without the contribution of every adviser, university and high school partner, staff member, investor, friend, and our remarkable board. I am particularly grateful to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation as our founding investor. They have played a critical role in our success over the years. Collectively, we have increased opportunity for thousands of students across America. It is an honor to serve with such a dedicated team.

Tell us about the creation of the College Guide Program, the precursor to the College Advising Corps, which you founded while at the University of Virginia. What sparked your desire?

In the summer of 2004, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation launched an initiative in Virginia to seed community-based, non-profit college access programs across the Commonwealth. I attended a meeting in Charlottesville where the Cooke Foundation presented the data (a student to counselor ratio of 369:1) and great need (only 53% of Virginians were entering college directly from high school). It occurred to me that we had talented students pursuing compelling service opportunities such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America after graduation and college advising could be another opportunity. This was a chance for our universities to be part of the college access movement: we were producing near-peer recent graduates, had expertise in the college admissions and financial aid processes, and could partner with high schools to increase college-going rates. The desire was to create a seamless pipeline from high school to college with well-trained, university-supported peer advisers to help guide the way. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has been an incredible partner from the start.

The College Advising Corps works with low-income, first-generation college, and underrepresented students in the hopes of increasing their likelihood of obtaining higher education. What do you often see as the biggest hindrance to these students’ path to school?

The biggest hindrance for our students is navigating the college process. If you speak to an 8th grade class, the vast majority of students want to go to college. They have college dreams. We need to help translate those aspirations into actionable steps, so students can enroll and succeed in higher education. Rigorous classes, fee waivers, FAFSA completion, scholarship opportunities, financial literacy, selecting and applying to “best fit” colleges — these are all critical milestones along the path to college. It is our responsibility to ensure that students have the knowledge and resources to make their dreams a reality.

Do you look for certain traits in each student to determine whether they will be successful in working towards and completing an undergraduate degree?

College Advising Corps has a whole-school approach to college access and success advising. Our job is to meet students where they are and help them fulfill their promise by expanding opportunity.

Tell me about a typical interaction between one of your advisers—a recent, successful college graduate—and a high school senior.

A typical interaction would be for an adviser and a senior to spend time on key college-going activities. Advisers help develop college lists, proof essays, fill out fee waivers, assist with FAFSA forms, host financial aid nights, encourage the pursuit of scholarships, and assist with the transition to college. When I visit our partner high schools, I am always struck by the number of students who tell me the most important thing the adviser said was “I believe in you.” And then they take that investment in each other and pursue the college journey together. Our advisers can say, “If I succeeded in college, you can too.” A typical interaction is a trusted mentor and an eager student working together to knock down academic, social, and financial barriers. I have seen those interactions in classrooms, offices, libraries, prom committee meetings, and basketball games. And we are also using technology – text messages to remind a student of a deadline or a link to a scholarship application.

What does success mean for you and your advisers?

College Advising Corps is a data-driven and evidence-based program. The advisers are guided by key performance indicators that will lead to an increase in college matriculations rates. These include:

  • Campus Visits
  • College Representative Visits and College Fairs
  • SAT/ACT Registration
  • College Workshops
  • College Application Submissions
  • FAFSA Completion
  • Scholarship Dollars Awarded

As a learning organization, and with the support of the Cooke Foundation, College Advising Corps engages in a comprehensive annual evaluation led by Dr. Eric Bettinger of Stanford University. The evaluation includes quantitative analysis, such as increases in college matriculation rates and qualitative analysis, such as student surveys and case studies to see if we are enhancing the college-going culture in our partner schools. “Success” is to see our students enroll and persist in higher education institutions that will serve them well. We are also committed to launching our advisers into their careers and creating a new generation of leaders.

If there is one thing you could fix concerning high-achieving, low-income, first generation and underrepresented students, what would it be? What would you like to see done better?

If I could fix anything for our high-achieving, low-income, first generation, and underrepresented students, it would be to prevent “undermatching.” High-achieving, low-income students are less likely to apply to, or enroll in, highly competitive colleges and less likely to complete college than their low-achieving, high-income peers. College Advising Corps, like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, is dedicated to ensuring our students achieve their potential through education. We must support students and ensure they enroll in schools that are the “best fit.” By providing thoughtful advising and increasing opportunity, we can make sure our students thrive in higher education and beyond.